Want to hike Half Dome this summer? Start planning this month.
Yosemite National Park's window to apply for a permit to scale the iconic monolith is open today through March 31. This is the first hiking season since the park made permanent a relatively new lottery-based permit system to limit foot traffic up the granite dome.
Interested hikers must enter the lottery for a chance get one of about 300 permits the park will issue per day. Under the lottery system, hikers can apply for up to six permits on seven separate days through the season. The majority of the permits will be issued in early April to those who applied this month.
The park will also issue about 50 permits each day to last-minute hikers who can apply two days in advance under a similar lottery system. In total, the park will issue about 225 day-use permits and 75 for backpackers.
"It doesn't matter when you put in your application (this month)," said Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. "We will look at all of them at the same time."
The system is meant to regulate the number of hikers on the Half Dome trail, which runs 17 miles from the Yosemite Valley floor to the 8,842-foot peak and back. In 2008, before the permit system, as many as 1,200 people a day were on the cable system used to trek to the dome's pinnacle.
The park started issuing permits in 2009, with the cables typically up between late May and mid-October. Hikers caught without a permit will be turned away, and could also get a ticket with penalties between $50 and $200 to as high as $5,000.
A little planning and flexibility can improve one's chances to get a permit. According to the Park Service, 35 percent of applicants in last year's March lottery applied to hike on a Saturday and 15 percent to hike on a Friday. The least-popular day was Thursday, with 8 percent of applications, and Tuesday and Wednesday received 10 percent each.
For those applying two days ahead, about 21 percent of applicants were successful between mid-June and August. The success rate increased in and after September, especially on weekdays, according to Yosemite statistics.
A permit system for day hikes is rare for the National Park Service, though Cobb said Mt. Whitney hikers also must apply for permits. Yosemite officials have tried to work bugs out of the system since starting, she said.
Early on, when they issued permits first-come, first-served, there were issues with scalpers who would secure permits and then resell them at higher prices. Now, hikers are required to carry identification, and groups with permits must be connected to one or two identifiable group leaders.
"We learned from that, and said it isn't working," she said.
Cobb said a ranger will be stationed at a junction about two miles from the summit using a computer tablet to check permits and names.
Cobb pointed out that those who get a permit early but run into rain or other poor conditions that prevent the hike are out of luck.
"This is nature, this is Yosemite. That's kind of the name of the game," Cobb said.
While hikers may be getting used to the lottery, some are seeing their business affected by the new policy.
YExplore Yosemite Adventures is a Groveland-based company that leads guided tours and hikes in and near the park. Owner John DeGrazio said that Half Dome was becoming his most popular hike until the permit system, which he said has limited the number of people he can now take up there.
To take a Half Dome hike with YExplore, hikers must secure their own permits, and the number of people per trip has decreased. And DeGrazio said the two-day window adds an element of unpredictability to reservations as people try to plan trips at the last minute.
DeGrazio pointed out that he's in favor of limiting the number of people on Half Dome, but he'd like to see a system that accommodates guide companies and can give them some more predictability.
For those who can't get permits, DeGrazio suggested the Clouds Rest trail, which he said is a "slightly less challenging" trail with a very similar experience.
"It offers amazing views, and it's almost 1,000 feet above Half Dome," he said.
To reserve a permit, visit www.recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777. Hikers will have to pay a non-refundable fee of $4.50 online or $6.50 by phone to apply and then a second fee of $8 per person when the permit is issued.